What We’re Into

17 September, 2020


America’s Race Problem is Its Caste System

I’m read­ing Caste: The Ori­gins of Our Dis­con­tents by Isabel Wilk­er­son. It’s both pro­found and sub­lime­ly easy to read, and strikes me as the most impor­tant book I have read recent­ly and per­haps ever. In it, Wilk­er­son looks at race in the Unit­ed States—noting that race is an arbi­trary and arti­fi­cial construct—and argues that caste, not race, is the real issue at hand and the struc­ture that the sta­tus quo works so hard to pre­serve. “Caste is the bones. Race is the skin,” Wilk­er­son states. “Race is what we see, the phys­i­cal traits that have been giv­en arbi­trary mean­ing and becomes short­hand for who a per­son is. Caste is the pow­er­ful infra­struc­ture that holds each group in its place.”  Wilk­er­son com­pares the caste sys­tem in the US to India and Nazi Ger­many, which used Amer­i­can racial puri­ty laws as the basis for their own biases. 

Those who have already thought and read about these issues will per­haps not find so much new in terms of the infor­ma­tion Wilk­er­son presents, but will like­ly have many ‘aha’ moments in terms of the con­nec­tions she draws and the con­clu­sions she makes. Read­ing the book feels a bit like watch­ing an image emerge in a bath of pho­to­graph­ic devel­op­er solu­tion; it limns and clar­i­fies what one already knew, and sud­den­ly both recent and past US his­to­ry make a bit more sense.  When we dis­patch of the idea of black and white, we see that every­one in the US, par­tic­u­lar­ly more recent immi­grants, is placed into the hier­ar­chy of caste, and the notion of social mobil­i­ty takes on a decid­ed­ly dif­fer­ent hue. —Monique El-Faizy

ayad akhtar's homeland elegies & sayed kashua's track changes

The End of Racism

I’ve just read two new nov­els that call into ques­tion how I think about nar­ra­tive fic­tion vs. auto­bi­og­ra­phy and mem­oir, and how I nego­ti­ate my own identity—they are Home­land Ele­gies by Ayad Akhtar (2013 Pulitzer for the play Dis­graced), and Track Changes by Sayed Kashua (cre­ator of the hit Israeli TV series “Arab Labor” and author of the nov­els Danc­ing Arabs and Sec­ond Skin). In both of these very per­son­al sto­ries, the first-per­son nar­ra­tor is an athe­ist or agnos­tic Mus­lim who nav­i­gates between racist Amer­i­ca and not (or no longer) fit­ting in back in their home­land (Pak­istan and Palestine/Israel respec­tive­ly). While read­ing these nov­els I felt incensed by the anti-Mus­lim sus­pi­cion shoul­dered by the nar­ra­tors and engi­neered by Amer­i­cans and Israelis. It very much put me in mind of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment and how so many of us have been out on the streets, world­wide, try­ing to change our racist and white suprema­cist real­i­ty. And here I had been think­ing that, hell, I read James Bald­win and Franz Fanon in my youth, since then the world has pro­gressed enor­mous­ly. After all, the USA has had a Black pres­i­dent, and near­ly half the pop­u­la­tion of my native coun­try is now non-white. But progress is always one step for­ward, two steps back­ward. Humankind evolves very slow­ly, over decades and mil­len­nia, and the slow pace of change is painstak­ing. After fin­ish­ing Home­land Ele­gies and Track Changes, I asked myself, how can we speed up intel­lec­tu­al evo­lu­tion? When will we rel­e­gate racism to the trash bin of laugh­able the­o­ries, like the flat earth or homo­sex­u­al­i­ty as a lifestyle choice? —Jor­dan Elgrably 

The Bureau des Légendes , creator Eric Rochant (Photo: Canal +)

The War Correspondent and the Poets

I just hand­ed in my lat­est book about Chris­tians in the Mid­dle East, called The Van­ish­ing, to my pub­lish­ers (it will be pub­lished next Spring). The last book I read relat­ing to that research was a French doc­u­ment giv­en to me in Gaza about the Chris­t­ian set­tle­ment there going back to the 4th cen­tu­ry, writ­ten by a priest at the small embat­tled church there. My next book will be about moral injury and the con­cept of evil—in rela­tion to war crimes—so I am read­ing Dr. Bas­sel van der Kork’s excel­lent The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Body and the Heal­ing of Trau­ma. On my list is to re-read Han­nah Arendt’s Eich­mann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banal­i­ty of Evil as well as Git­ta Sereny’s Into that Dark­ness and The Heal­ing Wound. Dr. Jonathan Shea’s Achilles in Viet­nam is an impor­tant ref­er­ence for me. 

For pure plea­sure, I am watch­ing “Le Bureau des Légen­des” (Le Bureau), which is about the under­cov­er unit of the French intel­li­gence ser­vice, the DGSE devot­ed to field work­ers who work for years, and it takes my mind off work. I was select­ed to be a judge for the LA Times Book Prize, and I was sent dozens of non-fic­tion books to read; the one I am enjoy­ing the most is called The Equiv­a­lents by Mag­gie Doher­ty, a sto­ry of female friend­ship in the 1960s cen­tered around the poets and writ­ers who attend­ed the Bunting Insti­tute at Rad­cliffe Col­lege. This includ­ed great poets like the late Anne Sex­ton and Sylvia Plath, Max­ine Kumin, Tillie Olsen, and their inter­ac­tion with greats like Robert Low­ell. It’s a won­der­ful win­dow into what life was like for women strug­gling to com­bine work, moth­er­hood, and oth­er respon­si­bil­i­ties while try­ing to write. 

I always read poetry—by Wal­lace Stevens, Robert Low­ell, Hart Crane and Walt Whit­man. It soothes and inspires me. —Janine Di Giovanni